Author of many well-researched novels, Susan Holloway Scott has a talent for distilling historical characters, evoking their personalities and the passions that drive them. Perhaps a lesser character in the grand scheme of things, Katherine Sedley is a child of wealth and privilege in Restoration England. Touched by madness, Katherine’s mother is whisked away by priests to a convent, leaving her father, Charles Sedley, free to frolic with his libertine friends the Dukes of Rochester and Buckingham, King Charles II, aficionados of bawdy plays and lusty actresses.
At age ten, Katherine’s precocious nature is encouraged. While not a beauty, she has a rapier wit that earns her a place among those sophisticated gentlemen and the notice of the randy Charles II. What her father has wrought is not so easily brought to heel, for Katherine has grown used to her freedoms and chafes under criticism by the time she is asked to the court of James Stuart’s new bride. Long ago, Katherine was promised the choice of husband; unfortunately, with time, she meets no man to whom she might willingly yoke her future, save one.
Though it takes years to come to fruition, Katherine has caught the eye of James Stuart, the Duke of York and heir to the throne of England. Of a duller mind than his brother, James has not the verbal skills to joust with Katherine but is devastatingly handsome and happy in her company. Their affair becomes a scandal, but in Holloway’s telling, the affection is genuine, Katherine the brunt of court ridicule yet resolute in her loyalty to James.
Trouble comes from yet another direction: James’s devotion to the “Romish” Church. As successor to Charles, this is no small matter, the diatribes against the Pope growing as citizens fear the influence of Rome on a Catholic king. In spite of Katherine’s love for her duke, she cannot protect him or herself from the tide of politics that washes over England, the ugly threats against James and those who will do anything to prevent a Catholic invasion. Even Charles Sedley has reformed, demanding that Katherine act in a respectable manner: “There are few things more fearsome than a libertine who has reformed for the sake of a virtuous woman.”
Katherine’s future is made more difficult by her own aversion to Catholicism and belief in the Anglican religion of her father. What should be a simple affair of the heart is fraught with consequences once James Stuart becomes king of England. Katherine is forced to make the most difficult decision of all - loyalty to England or her lover. While Holloway makes a convincing argument on behalf of her protagonist, there is no way to know just how noble are the motives of a royal mistress who has cast aside reputation for a lover of high birth.
It is easier to view this character in the context of her early years: child of a libertine who cut her teeth on satire and bawdy riposte, whose best defense is the quickness of her wit amid constant reminders that she has no beauty to recommend her. Like other such women, Katherine Sedley defies convention and captures the love and loyalty of a man who will be king but whose religious convictions are the greatest obstruction to his destiny.